Tips for Identifying Lucifer Hummingbird

Tips for Identifying Lucifer Hummingbird
Lucifer HummingbirdLucifer Hummingbird, adult male. September in Brewster County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

When birders visit the Southwestern United States in late summer, hummingbirds usually rank high on their “wish list.” One of the most sought after is the rare and enigmatic Hummingbird Lucifer. Although it occurs annually in three states, its status is poorly understood.

Native to central Mexico, the Lucifer hummingbird was first detected in 1901 in the arid country of what is now Big Bend National Park in western Texas. It is still the bird’s main stronghold north of the border. Experts have estimated the summer population there at around 50 breeding females and likely a comparable number of males. (When discussing hummingbird populations, we don’t say “50 pairs,” because they don’t form pair bonds or defend territories as a pair.) The lucifers around Big Bend primarily nest on rocky slopes and rocky slopes. dry canyons, feeding on agave flowers, ocotillo and other desert plants.

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Further west, Arizona had two very old records, but regular sightings didn’t start piling up until the 1970s. Lucifers have definitely been on the rise since then. They are now annuals in small numbers in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, and several nests have been found.

Many traveling birders are now catching up with Lucifers in Arizona, but often in places that aren’t quite typical habitats. Although the species prefers open desert for nesting, birdwatchers are more likely to see it at feeders, and popular feeders attracting Lucifers are in wooded areas: just inside the oak zone in the lower parts of the canyons. The species appears at these locations from late March to early October, and numbers may increase in late summer as the birds move upslope after nesting. So many birders have seen Lucifers in Arizona and seen them well, but come away with misleading impressions of the bird’s usual habitat.

The Lucifer is not a close relative of any other hummingbird in the United States, and it has a distinctive appearance. Its bill shape – long, somewhat thick, moderately curved – makes for a good ground mark, but be careful, as other species like black-chinned hummingbirds and Costa’s hummingbirds also have slightly curved bills.


The dull green crown and purple throat of the male, with elongated corners at the throat, should be diagnostic with good eyesight. Its remarkably long black tail is usually kept tightly closed, revealing a deep fork only when spread out.

Females and juveniles are variably buff on the face and underparts, but this color alone is not a land mark, as other species may also show buff below. Even a hummingbird that is mostly whitish below may have its throat stained yellow or buff from desert flower pollen. Best of note is the Lucifer’s facial pattern, with a broad eyebrow over a dark ear, giving a distinctive look appropriate to this uncommon frontier specialty.

What to look for

The size and the shape. A small-sized hummingbird with a noticeably long tail (especially in males) and a long beak.
Beak shape. Long and somewhat heavy, moderately curved.
Male head model. Dull green crown and iridescent purple throat, with elongated corners of the gorget extending down the side of the neck.
Female and youthful face model. The dark patch extends back and down the eye, setting off a pale eyebrow that widens backwards and connects to a pale breast band.
Tail pattern. The male has a long, narrow, black tail, showing a deep fork when extended. The female’s tail has green central rectrices, outer rectrices with rufous bases and white tips separated by a black subterminal band.

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Lucifer HummingbirdLucifer Colibri, female or juvenile. September in Brewster County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

A well-marked female or juvenile Lucifer Colibri can be very distinctive. The beak is noticeably curved and appears heavy at the base. (Costa’s, another desert hummingbird, also has a slightly curved beak, but its beak appears very slender.) On the face, a gray ear patch extends back and down from the eye, highlighted by a pale whitish-grey to buff supercilium band that widens towards the rear. Band between throat and breast may be white to pale buff, and cinnamon-buff on breast and flanks varies from obvious to faint. The color of the underparts might suggest Selasphore species like the Rufous Hummingbird, but beak shape and facial pattern should rule them out.

Lucifer HummingbirdLucifer Hummingbird, adult male. September in Brewster County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

Compared to other North American hummingbirds, the Lucifer has odd proportions, and the long, curved beak is only part of the story. The tail is long, especially in the male. When perched, the length of the tail is made more evident by the fact that this species has relatively short wings. Illustrations often show the male with a strikingly forked tail, but the fork is rarely visible except during certain flight maneuvers, including courtship. The male Black-chinned Hummingbird, which is also found in the southwestern lowlands, also has a somewhat forked black tail. Since it also has purple on its lower throat, it is sometimes mistaken for a Lucifer hummingbird.

Lucifer HummingbirdLucifer Colibri, female or juvenile. September in Brewster County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

Female and juvenile Lucifers can vary in the amount of buff color on the face and underparts. Some, especially adult females with worn plumage, may appear mostly greyish-white below. The bird in this image shows good buff tones on the sides and flanks, but not on the face or throat. The general pattern of his face is still evident, however, with a strong dark ear patch extending from the eye, set off from the grey-green crown by a wide pale eyebrow. A white patch behind the eye is visible but not as prominent as on some other hummers. Note the bright rufous orange border in the outer tail feathers, a good distinction from the more similar species.

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black-chinned hummingbirdBlack-chinned hummingbird, female. May in Cochise County, Arizona. Photo by Brian E. Small

Although the curved beak is often pointed out as a major field mark for Lucifer Hummingbird, some other species have at least a slight bend to their beaks. Among southwestern species, the Blackchin may have a beak shape approaching that of Lucifer, as on this female. Because the black-chinned female may also have a buff tint to the lower underparts, this may mislead birders keen to find a Lucifer. The two species differ slightly in shape, with the Lucifer having a smaller head and shorter wings, and their facial patterns are generally different. If in doubt, check the tail pattern. Female and juvenile Lucifers will show some rufous in the outer tail feathers, lacking a black chin.

What’s in a name?

As a child learning about birds, I thought the hummingbird name Lucifer made perfect sense. Illustrations showed the male with a prominent forked tail, and Satan cartoons often showed him with a forked tail as well. I deduced that Lucifer, another name for the devil, had been applied to this little bird in whimsical reference to the shape of its tail.

It might have seemed logical, but it wasn’t correct. “Lucifer” is based on Latin words meaning “bringer of light”. As with so many other hummingbirds, the iridescent feathers of this species seem to glow with their own light. Scientists have struggled to come up with names for these varied and colorful creatures, and this one was given the name Lucifer as the bringer of light.


The hummingbird family includes more than 350 species. If all had names ending in “hummingbird”, it would be difficult to find distinct modifiers for all. But a high percentage of tropical species have more poetic group names: hermit, sunangel, topaz, jacobin, visorbearer, lancebill, fairy, sungem, sylph, coquette, and dozens more.

Species found regularly in the United States and Canada are referred to simply as “hummingbirds,” though tropical wandering species break the monotony with names like violetear, mango, and starthroat. Calothorax lucifer is related to several tropical species called sheartails, and some authors suggest that “Lucifer Sheartail” would make a fine English name for this species.